William Friedkin in Conversation - A Journey Through American Cinema

William Friedkin in conversation in Rome
The 1973 movie The Exorcist appears on just about every list of Top Ten Horror flicks and has often been described by critics as one of the scariest movies of all time. It was surprising, therefore, to hear its creator – film director William Friedkin, in conversation yesterday evening in Sala Sinopoli at the Auditorium Parco della Musica – explain to Antonio Monda and Mario Sesti, that he never intended it to be considered a horror film, and that instead, he thought of it an exploration of faith. In Rome as the third guest in the 2011 season of Viaggio nel cinema americano (A Journey Through American Cinema), after encounters with Debra Winger and Christopher Walken earlier this year, the evening with William Friedkin followed the usual format - clips from some of the director's finest movies were shown, interspersed with a minimum of pertinent questions care of Sesti and Monda.

Kicking off proceedings with The Exorcist, in fact, it was clear from the outset that this was going to be richly entertaining – an extremely generous interviewee, William Friedkin was full of fascinating anecdotes, and seemed genuinely delighted to be able to chat freely and at great length about his working methods. The Exorcist won an Oscar for Best Sound and the director revealed that as a film-maker he has been enormously influenced by the radio dramas he listened to in the pre-television days of his childhood and that sound and images in his films are often created entirely separately. In The Exorcist, for example, in the midst of the extraordinary and terrifying sounds of Regan's exorcism, there are sounds taped during a genuine exorcism which took place in the Vatican and had been given to the director by a Jesuit priest – scary stuff indeed!

The ground-breaking car chase from The French Connection in which Gene Hackman – whom Friedkin confessed to having bullied constantly during filming, shouting and swearing at him to bring out the rage he needed for the camera - is in hot pursuit of a runaway subway train, was paired with another breathtaking car chase in To Live and Die in L.A., with CSI's William Peterson at the wheel. Seeing these clips again on the big screen reminded one of the dazzling stunt work and directorial skills of the days prior to the arrival of CGI, although Friedkin modestly played down his own work and praised some of the visually stunning effects by recent directors, in particular citing Paul Greengrass's work on The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Grumblings of dissent were heard from the adoring audience at the suggestion that the new special effects used to create chase scenes were now far better than anything he did back then; his declaration that he hated 3D movies, on the other hand, was greeted with a cheer and ripple of applause! Would Citizen Kane have been a better film if it had been shot in 3D? he asked ironically, I think not!

Saying that he loved chase scenes because they were one of the few instances in filmmaking that truly couldn't be reproduced in any other medium, he also told an amusing tale about how, in the absence of either subtitled or dubbed versions, cinemas in Thailand during the 1970s used to actually pause movies every ten minutes or so, in order that somebody could come out on stage and explain what had just happened on screen - I vowed to make films that required no dialogue to understand the action... You don't need dialogue to understand a chase scene!

Friedkin's wife, Sherry Lansing was also present in the audience, although when clips from two dramatically different movies with gay subject matter – The Boys in the Band and Cruising - were shown, it emerged that she isn't always a fan of her husband's work. She had apparently hated Cruising when it was first released in 1980. The film, a dark murder mystery thriller set in New York S&M leather bars, was met with controversy and angry protests from the gay community at the time, but in recent years has seen a positive critical reappraisal and is now seen as a somewhat nostalgic look at a pre-AIDS era gay subculture. When it received a lengthy standing ovation at a special showing at Cannes Film Festival last year, however, one person stayed buried in their seat – Ms. Lansing! She hated it! Friedkin said with enormous relish.

By a strange and somewhat sinister turn of events, Cruising is also linked to The Exorcist. In the earlier film a real-life radiologist and his assistant were used in the hospital scenes. Friedkin said that he had been surprised to note that the medical assistant had been wearing an earring and leather studded bracelet, audacious signals that the man was gay and unusual in those closeted times. He was shocked several years later to hear that this same man was in Rikers Island, accused of a brutal murder. Friedkin actually visited him in prison as part of his research for Cruising - the man confessed to Friedkin that he couldn't even be sure if he was guilty or not, because he had been so out of his head on drugs in that period. If visiting murderers in prison weren't enough, getting clearance to actually film in the real leather bars required a visit to “an old Mafia friend” of Friedkin, who owned the New York club scene at the time – his description of how they avoided police surveillance and bugging devices at the Mafia boss's home was pure cinema itself. So much so, in fact, that a film student in the audience asked if he could use the anecdote for a short film – Be my guest! was the reply, although the director declined to name any names... for fear of being killed! Friedkin was laughing as he said this, but how large a pinch of salt we should take with this tale from such a marvellous raconteur is anybody's guess!

At the end of a long question and answer session with the audience he was clearly in no hurry to rush off stage. In fact, when fans rushed the stage with DVDs and photos for him to sign, he grabbed a chair, made himself comfortable and stayed chatting to his admirers until he'd signed every last autograph. A wonderful evening!

Watch a short video of William Friedkin graciously signing numerous autographs at the end of the evening below or click here to watch on YouTube.